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‘Sheer hard work has brought us this far’

AIR has played a significant role in our progress. We have performed at several landmark events, thus reaching the public.

Bombay Sisters

Saroja and Lalitha — singers who were among the first to perform in pairs. The concert circuit, these days, is dotted with several duos but the Bombay Sisters, as they are popularly known, are special and have retained their charm. Showered with accolades and awards, the two are much sought after musicians known for their adherence to patanthara and unswerving values. So what makes them tick? Excerpts from an interview:

How did it all begin?

We were five sisters. The eldest one, Sethu, along with a cousin Lalitha, used to perform at local temples in Bombay. As a six-year-old, I was inspired by their singing and used to join them. Then, I started learning from Sethu. Music lessons were going on simultaneously as we finished our SSC and then moved down to Madras. My father Chidambara Iyer was determined to make me a professional performer.

Younger sister Lalitha joined me later. Father, however, did not know how to promote us. But he pushed us to the point of excellence and it happened. Divine will surely that out of five two should make it. We earned our degrees through distance education of the Delhi University. Getting to hear vidwans such as MS, DKP, MLV, Semmangudi in their prime, whenever they came to Bombay, added to the learning.

Was Lalitha a little reluctant?

Our family moved down from Bombay, only to develop my music talent. I was awarded the Government of India scholarship and started learning from Musiri Subramania Iyer.

Lalitha never wanted to make music her career. Her dream was to become an English teacher. I virtually had to cajole and coax her into music. At the Central College of Carnatic music, Musiri identified my talent and offered me special training at his house.

Gradually, Lalitha who played the tambura, joined us and there was no looking back. Our plan to return to Bombay was shelved. Lalitha too won the Central Government scholarship to pursue music. We used stay in Mylapore Apparswamy Koil Street then.

Chandrasekar, who was the elder brother of music critic NMN, heard us and asked father whether we would be interested in performing a kutcheri. We accepted his offer and that was our first performance, at the Mouna Swamigal Madam, Ambattur, on the occasion of the installation of the Navagraha shrine.

The Swamigal blessed us and wrote on a piece of paper that we would be known as Bombay Sisters.


We were slated to perform in the junior slot which was to be followed by Madurai Mani Iyer’s concert at a sabha. He fell ill and could not perform. He had asked the organisers to move our concert to his slot.

Vidwans those days were so large hearted. We still cherish that moment. After that, concert offers came pouring in. But success did not come on a platter. Nothing but hard work has brought this far.

All India Radio helped us scale great heights. AIR, in fact, has been a partner in our progress. For instance, we sang the first concert when Semmangudi inaugurated the FM station in Chennai. Ours was also the first semi-classical concert to be relayed when Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the National band of AIR.

We were also chosen to sing Arunagirnathar’s Tiruppugazh from a classical musician’s point of view during his centenary celebrations. We rendered Surdas’s bhajans as vidwans from South India on another occasion.

Fusion and jugalbandi…

Well, that’s not our cup of tea.


We used to visit the Kanchi Math regularly. On one such occasion recently, Periyaval conferred on us the status of the Math’s ‘Asthana Vidhushis’. We are the first women artistes to receive this coveted honour. It is a blessing. We have won other awards too, noteworthy among them being ‘Kalaimamani’ in 1992 and ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi’ award in 2005.

Training under T.K.Govinda Rao...

He was more than a guru. We knew him even during our days with Musiri. His energy was unbelievable. He could go on teaching for hours and remain fresh when we as students would be yearning for a break. And he was so persevering. He wouldn’t be satisfied until we got even the minute inflection perfectly.


We had quite a few. But they either got married or left on job assignments. We are busy with our concerts. May be we’ll take up teaching after a few more years.

Special memories…

We owe it to our father, who sowed the seed. Our husbands who have given tremendous support. And the way we have been mutually helpful to each other, in planning concert schedules and practice sessions.

Our rehearsals at our parents’ place until mother’s demise… There have been days when we have travelled even by lorry to catch up with the next day’s concert. All that looks so far away now but it was never easy.

Today, it is more a sukhanubhavam approach. Age is slowly catching up and our wish is to sing as long as our rasikas want us to.


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